The historic, groundbreaking Black acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock has performed songs of freedom for nearly 50 years on some of the world’s most important stages.

Last week, owing to the pandemic, the group’s first in-person performance in over a year took place at the Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., amphitheater of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, as part of its Juneteenth celebration.

Sweet Honey in the Rock’s roots in the struggle for human rights run deeper than deep. Planted in the Black church music tradition, the group was started in 1973 by American freedom song pioneer Bernice Johnson Reagon, a past recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” who was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers that was an essential, albeit frequently overlooked artistic element demanding change during the 1960’s Civil Rights movement.

Bernice Johnson Reagan retired in 2004, and the ensemble’s members have changed over the decades. Its early members included Yasmeen Williams, Ysaye Maria Barnwell, and sign language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton. Among the current members who appeared at the museum park Friday evening were Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Rochelle Rice, sign language interpreter Barbara Hunt, and upright bassist Romier Mendez, who is the ensemble’s first male member.

Sweet Honey in the Rock’s songs of freedom and Black womanism has earned the group three Grammy nominations. The group’s last album—its 24th—#LoveInEvolution, was released in 2016. Still they are like the Grateful Dead, or Frankie Beverly and Maze: their fans arrive in droves whenever and wherever they show up to perform because it’s always a can’t-miss event. For this writer, the musical offering that best captures the spirit and power of the ensemble is their 1981 album, Good News. 

“We sing about our stories, our feelings, our action and interaction with the world as humans, as women, as Black women, as descendants of our enslaved African ancestors; as wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, humans on this planet,” Kahlil, who joined the group in 1981, told the INDY. “We sing about what touches us. It can be anything; love, relationships, all of the different issues, and freedom struggles around the world.”

When the ensemble sat on the stools placed in the stage, their presence was reminiscent of a group of Black women—kinfolk in every sense of the word—sitting on a southern front porch at dusk, contemplating and celebrating issues of freedom, motherhood, spirituality, our heroes and she-roes with voices of harmony simultaneously walking into the past, present and future. 

Indeed, during an oral history interview last year with the Roadwork Center, Williams said before joining Sweet Honey in the Rock, she first saw them performing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the mid-1970s.

“I saw four or five women sitting on a simulated porch and I saw my sister’s face in each one of those women,” she said.

The amphitheater audience knew they were in for a buffet of musical soul food. Even before the ensemble sang one note Friday night, its members were greeted with enthusiastic applause.

“This is our first live audience,” said Maillard, who, along with Robinson is one of the group’s founding members. Moments later, before the group sang the evening’s first song, “We Are,” Maillard said the pandemic is a “pointed reminder that we are one.”

“It’s so beautiful to see actual human beings after what we have been through as a world,” the songstress added, noting how she had been unnerved by how quickly things have opened up and her schedule filled up. 

She reminded the audience to “remember the stillness, the peace, the centeredness we all came to during this pandemic, whether we want to or not. I refuse to go back to busyness.”

From the first to the last note, the Washington, DC-based ensemble did not disappoint. In an evening pregnant with high points, Nina Simone’s “Come Ye,” the gospel “Somebody Prayed For Me, a stunning take on the Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Variations,” perennial favorite “Ella’s Song,” that pays tribute to civil rights activist Ella Baker, the haunting “Second Line Blues that pays tribute to the men, women and children who have died at the hands of the police and other self-appointed vigilantes.

The names chanted are now part of a tragic and in some instances familiar roll call of victims: Freddy Gray, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmad Arberry, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Emmett Till, and Medgar Evers. (“And think of all the names she didn’t call,” one vocalist said at the song’s end.)

One of the ensemble’s closing numbers was a stunning cover of another song, “Feeling Good,” by Nina Simone that featured Kahlil who displayed a stunning range of jazz phrasings, and impeccable scat chops that had this writer, if not the entire audience, understanding what freedom sounds like. At one point, Kahlil also put her formal dance and theatre training to work; arms stretching upward, body a-swirl, the physical embodiment of freedom.

For those who missed Sweet Honey In The Rock’s live concert in Raleigh, the ensemble’s virtual Juneteenth celebration, “Breathe…And Never Turn Back” on Saturday is still available on demand. Tickets for the online event can be purchased here

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